What is direct democracy? What are two major types of direct democracy? How did direct democracy operate in ancient Athens? How has it operated at the local level in New England? What other practices of direct democracy have been carried on in the U.S.A.? How does direct democracy differ from representative democracy? What are the arguments in favor of direct democracy and against representative democracy? What key arguments have been presented in support of representative democracy and in opposition to direct democracy?

1. Direct DemocracyDefinition and Description:

In a direct democracy, major decisions on public policy are made directly by the mass of adult citizens. Most citizens personally participate–or have the legal right to personally participate–in the making of authoritative, binding decisions. In other words, the whole body of adult citizenry governs the political society.

There have been two major types of direct democracy–(1) government by common mass assembly and (2) government by plebiscite.

Government by Common Mass Assembly. In this type of direct democracy, all qualified adult citizens are members of the legislature and have the right to participate directly in the making of laws. Periodically, a mass meeting of qualified adult citizens is held at a central location in the political community. This common mass assembly functions as the legislature of the community, levying taxes, appropriating money from the public treasury, enacting other laws, and providing for the enforcement of its laws and policies. The mass legislative assembly may elect a number of important officers who (1) carry on the day-to-day operation of the government during intervals between sessions of the assembly and (2) implement the policy decisions made by the assembly. The mass assembly arrives at decisions by simple majority vote. All qualified adult citizens of the community have the right to attend sessions of the legislature and speak, make and vote on motions, and vote on proposed legislation, including taxes and appropriations.

Government by common mass assembly is most effective in political communities where the population is very small (consisting of a few hundred persons or less), dwells in a small and compact territory, and does not have to cope with the many complex problems which typically confront a modern democratic government. This type of direct democracy, in short, works best in a small community where public problems are few and simple.

Examples of the type of direct democracy in which laws are made by a mass legislative assembly consisting of the general citizenry include (1) the governmental systems of some of the ancient Greek city-states, the Athenian system in particular, (2) the local governments in the less populous and more rural New England towns today, and (3) the local governments of several of Switzerland’s less populous and more rural cantons.

Government by Plebiscite. The word “plebiscite” means a direct vote of the people to decide an issue of public policy–an expression of the popular will on a policy issue by direct ballot of all qualified voters participating in the election. “Plebiscite” is roughly synonymous with the term “referendum.”

A system of government in which major issues of public policy are decided by plebiscite, or referendum, is referred to as “government by plebiscite,” or “plebiscitary democracy.” In this type of direct democracy, elections are held to enable the general citizenry to vote on proposed legislation. Rather than leaving the enactment of legislation to a smaller body of elected representatives, the voting citizenry at large is called on to determine, by plebiscite, whether particular public-policy proposals will become law. When the government proposes a major piece of legislation, a nation-wide or community-wide plebiscite, or referendum, is held and the voters vote Yes or No on the proposed legislative bill. If a majority of the voters voting in the plebiscite vote Yes, the bill becomes law. In short, laws are made by direct nation-wide or community-wide popular vote.

In European history, legislative decisionmaking by plebiscite has often been the device employed by a popular and charismatic national chief executive determined to by-pass or override a legislative assembly of elected representatives and go directly to the people at large, staging a series of plebiscites to (1) obtain official adoption of his policies, (2) establish his legitimacy as paramount leader of the nation and as the embodiment of the popular will, (3) undermine the legitimacy of the legislature as a body representing the people, and (4) destroy or seriously weaken the legislature’s position as an independent power center capable of effectively opposing and checking the chief executive and cushioning the legislative decisionmaking process and its outcomes against the pressure of momentary popular passions and opinions, aroused and manipulated by the chief executive and his key political henchmen. Plebiscitary democracy was the type of governmental system that operated in France from 1852 to 1870, when Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) was top leader and ruler of the French nation. Hence, plebiscitary democracy is ofter referred to as “Bonapartism.”

2. Direct Democracy in Ancient Athens:

Democratic political institutions operated in the city-state of Athens during the second half of the fifth century B.C., throughout most of the following century, and intermittently thereafter. The Athenian system of government during the period was the type of direct democracy that is known as government by common mass assembly.

The Ecclesia. The Ecclesia, the legislature of ancient Athens, was a primary assembly, rather than a representative assembly. It was a mass legislative assembly consisting of the entire adult citizenry of the city-state. Every adult citizen had the right to attend sessions of the Ecclesia.

In Athens, a male inhabitant was considered to be an adult, once he had reached the age of 18 years. If both his parents were Athenians, a young man, on reaching the age of adulthood, was entitled to be enrolled as an Athenian citizen. After being enrolled and thereby attaining citizenship status, the young man, like every other adult citizen, was entitled to (1) attend meetings of the Ecclesia, (2) actively participate in its proceedings, and (3) speak and vote on measures brought before the assembly.

Meeting frequently (normally, forty times a year during the fourth century B.C.), the Ecclesia arrived at decisions by simple majority vote–by majority vote of all citizens present and voting.

At times, the Ecclesia had an informal leader who regularly and repeatedly was successful in his efforts to sway the assembly and steer it in the direction of approving the measures he favored (e.g., Pericles, during the period from 462 to 429 B.C.). The position and political power of this informal leader were based on the fairly stable majority support he enjoyed in the Ecclesia.

The Ecclesia had the power of final decisionon on all major questions of public policy. The Ecclesia (1) enacted general legislative statutes, (2) levied direct taxes, (3) decided on formation of alliances with foreign powers, (4) declared war, and (5) concluded peace. In addition, the Ecclesia exercised ultimate control over (1) foreign diplomacy, (2) the military forces, (3) Athens’ colonial policy, (4) public works, (5) administration of government finance, (6) coping with the problems of food supply, (7) the institutional machinery for ostracism–i.e., the means by which citizens were exiled, or banished, and (8) the institutional machinery for naturalization–the process of granting Athenian citizenship to resident aliens.

3. Direct Democracy in New EnglandGovernment by Common Mass Assembly in the U.S.A.:

The Town Meeting. The town, as a unit of local government in the New England region, originated in the New England colonies during the early decades of the seventeenth century and became increasingly important during the course of its evolution throughout the century. In colonial New England, a town was governed by the Town Meeting, which was essentially a general assembly of the Town’s property-owning male inhabitants meeting for the purpose of settling questions of common concern. All legally qualified adult male residents of the Town had the right to attend sessions of the Town Meeting, participate in its debates and deliberations, and vote on measures brought before it. The Town Meeting, by simple majority vote, (1) enacted Town ordinances, (2) levied local taxes, (3) approved Town expenditures, (4) elected Town officers, and (5) elected the Town’s representatives to the colonial legislature.

Marcus Wilson Jernegan succintly describes the power and functions of the New England town meeting during the colonial period:

      "The town meeting was the main agency for regulation of the
      political and economic life of the [local] community.  It
      was here that taxes were levied, lands divided, and offi-
      cers chosen to promote the general welfare of the communi-
      ty.  In town meeting provision was made for the care of the
      poor, for the building and repair of roads, for the promo-
      tion of industries, through grants of land and monopolies,
      for the regulation of prices, and a host of other things.
      Thus the town meeting registered the will of the majority.
      The majority had the power to compel citizens to contrib-
      ute, in the form of taxes, to measures that would promote
      the good of the whole group."


In the New England states–Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont–the town today (1) is the principal unit of local government, except in the large cities, (2) generally consists of a village or small urban settlement and the surrounding countryside, (3) usually encompasses a small, compact territorial area of twenty to forty square miles, and (4) has, as its local legislative body, the Town Meeting, which, in the more rural and less populous towns, is a mass assembly of the legal residents, rather than an assembly of elected representatives. In each of the more rural and less populous towns, all residents who are qualified under state law to vote in elections for members of the state legislature are also legally qualified to attend their own Town Meeting and to speak and vote on measures considered by that body. At least once a year, every qualified resident of the Town is summoned to the Town Meeting, which is held in the Town Hall or in an open space somewhere. Those residents who take the time and trouble to attend the Town Meeting directly participate in its deliberations and authoritative decisionmaking on matters of local public policy.

Important decisions are made at the Town Meeting. Town “by-laws” (i.e., local ordinances) are passed. Taxes are levied to meet the expenses of local government. The borrowing of money by the Town government is authorized, when such borrowing is deemed necessary. Appropriations from the Town Treasury are made for the following fiscal year, Town funds being appropriated for (1) road construction and repair, (2) street lighting, (3) the library budget, (4) police and fire protection, (5) parks and recreation, (6) public health, (7) water supply, (8) the local share of the costs of social welfare programs, (9) the local share of the public school budget, (10) purchase of property and equipment, (11) salaries of Town employees, and (12) performance of other functions which a majority of the citizens attending and voting at the Town Meeting decide are in the public interest. The Town Meeting elects Town officers who implement the policies adopted by the Town Meeting and conduct the day-to-day business of Town government between sessions of the Town Meeting–e.g., the Board of Selectmen and the Town Clerk, Treasurer, Justice of the Peace, Constable, Attorney, Tax Assessor, and Road Commissioner.

As we have seen, the town-meeting type of direct democracy–government by common mass assembly–still functions at the local level in New England, operating in the more rural, less populous towns. In the New England towns that have become highly urbanized and now have large populations, it has been necessary to shift from direct democracy to representative democracy. Some of these more urbanized and populous towns, especially in Connecticut and Massachusetts, have opted for the representative town meeting. Under this arrangement, a town is divided into districts and the voters in each district elect a number of residents of their district to serve as voting members of the Town Meeting. While the right to vote on motions and measures at the Town Meeting is limited to the elected members, all other qualified residents of the Town have the right to attend and express their opinions.

4. Other Examples of Direct Democracy in the U.S.A. Today:

In addition to the town meetings, as they currently operate in the less populous and more rural towns of the New England states, contemporary examples of the practice of direct democracy in the U.S.A. include certain concessions to popular participation in legislative decisionmaking at the state and local levels in many states. These concessions to state and local lawmaking by direct popular vote include such instruments as the referendum and the initiative.

The Referendum. The referendum, as employed in the U.S.A., is an electoral device giving the voters of a particular state or local jurisdiction the final say-so on whether a legislative bill will become law. A bill passed by a state or local legislature, under certain circumstances, cannot go into effect as law until the voters have had a chance to render their decision on the bill. In a referendum election, usually held at the same time as a general election, the voters approve or reject the legislative bill. A majority of the voters voting on the measure determine the bill’s fate, allowing it to become a law or preventing it from becoming a law. The referendum, therefore, gives the voters the opportunity to veto a decision of the legislature on a given issue of public policy–e.g., the legislature’s passage of a bill to increase or reduce taxes or to authorize a bond issue (i.e., the government’s borrowing of money) to fund construction of a new munipital auditorium.

The referendum, as an instrument for making final decisions on statutory legislation, is available for use in 24 states. With the exception of Delaware, all states use the referendum as the means ratifying or rejecting proposed state constitutional amendments.

The Initiative. One type of the initiative, the statutory initiative, gives the voters the opportunity to propose and vote on legislation that has not been passed by the legislature. A petition is drawn up calling for a direct popular vote on a particular piece of legislation–a legislative bill proposed by the petitioners themselves, rather than by the legislature. If the petition is signed by the required number of registered voters, the proposition is then put on the ballot and voted on by the electorate in the referendum election, which is held simultaneously with the next general election or is conducted as a special election, occurring at a time different from that of any regular election and being held for the sole purpose of allowing the voters to make decisions on legislation.

Another type of initiative, the constitutional initiative, gives the voters the opportunity to propose as well as vote on amendments to the state constitution. Any person or group may draft a proposed amendment and, by obtaining the required number of valid signatures of registered voters, have the amendment submitted to a popular vote in the next regular election or in a special election for the sole or primary purpose of enabling the electorate to ratify or reject the amendment.

22 states permit use of the statutory initiative–the initiative for popular proposal of ordinary state and local legislation (state statutes and local ordinances). 17 states permit use of the constitutional initiative–the initiative for popular proposal of state constitutional amendments.

5. Direct Democracy in the U.S.A.The Practice of Direct Democracy within an Overall Context of Representative Democracy:

Although significant concessions to direct democracy are made at the state and local levels of government in the U.S.A., all state governments and most local governments are representative democracies, rather than direct democracies. All fifty state legislatures are assemblies of representatives elected by the voters. With the exception of town meetings in the more rural, less populous New England towns, all local legislatures are elected representative assemblies. Most state statutes and local ordinances in the U.S.A. are the consequences of final decisions made by elected legislatures, not those made by direct vote of the adult citizenry at large.

6. Direct Democracy and Representative Democracy Contrasted:

Direct democracy is characterized by direct participation of the general citizenry in governmental decisionmaking on matters of public policy. Representative democracy, on the other hand, operates on the principle of popular control over–rather than popular participation in–the public-policy decisionmaking carried on by government.

Direct democracy operates on the principle of direct legislation–direct exercise of legislative authority by the general adult populace comprising the political community. Laws are enacted either by a mass assembly consisting of the adult citizenry as a whole or by the voters voting in an election–a plebiscite, or referendum.

Systems of representative democracy are based on the principle of political representa- tion–exercise of legislative authority by a representative assembly elected by the voters. Representative democracy is characterized by the existence and operation of representative policy decisionmaking institutions consisting of public officeholders popularly elected, at relatively short intervals, on a broad electoral franchise.

In brief, governing authority in a representative democracy is not exercised directly by the whole body of adult citizens, as is the case in a direct democracy. In a representative democracy of the pure-type, where there are no concessions to direct democracy, statutory laws are made neither by plebiscite nor by a mass legislative assembly of the general populace. Instead, the general voting populace elects a smaller body of representatives who constitute the legislature and make laws for and in the name of the entire community.

7. The Political Theory Underlying and Supporting Direct Democracy:

Certain radically democratic political thinkers and writers of the past developed and advanced a series of arguments critical of representative democracy and supportive of direct democracy. These arguments now constitute a body of political theory, or philosophy, intended to justify direct democracy over representative democracy.

According to this body of theory, representative “democracy” cannot be truly democratic. One person cannot represent the interests of another. In a representative government, elected representatives represent neither the general interest of the whole community nor the particular interests of the voters who put them in office. Once they have taken office and have begun to make the official decisions of government on public policy, elected representatives are guided by self-interest, give first priority to enhancing and perpetuating their own political power, and are highly responsive to the special interests and demands of wealthy and influential minorities that can help the elected officeholders retain their positions of political authority. For a governmental system to be truly democratic, all adult citizens must be members of the legislature and have the right to participate directly in the process of legislative decisionmaking on public policy. There must be direct participation by the masses–by the people, by the whole body of adult citizens–in the making of decisions that have the force of law and are binding on the entire society. Representative government leads to oligarchy, to rule by the few. Only direct democracy is consistent with Aristotle’s definition of “democracy“–“rule by the many.”

Examples of political theorists who have argued in favor of direct democracy and against representative democracy include (1) Jean Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth-century French political philosopher, and (2) certain anarchists of the nineteenth century. Rousseau was a radical democratic thinker and writer of the Age of Enlightenment, a political theorist of the coming French Revolution, and an advocate of absolute as well as direct democracy. A notable nineteenth-century anarchist advocating direct democracy was the Frenchman Pierre Joseph Proudon, who called for (1) dissolution of France and the other sovereign states of Europe and (2) formation of small, virtually independent local communities, which were to be loosely and voluntarily held together in a European confederation.

8. The Political Theory Underlying and Supporting Representative Democracy:

The body of political theory underlying and supporting representative democracy contains four key arguments against direct democracy and in favor of representative democracy.

Argument One. Direct democracy is not a realistic alternative to representative government. It is impossible for the people as a whole to intelligently make public policy over a wide range of issues. Most people lack the time, energy, and interest to give such a high level of ongoing personal attention to politics and public affairs. Also, they are without the necessary education, information, and political skills.

Argument Two. Direct democracy is an undesirable as well as impractical system of government. When legislative authority is exercised by the masses, they frequently make hasty and unwise decisions on public policy, arriving at such decisions on the basis of momentary popular wishes and passions or under the influence of clever political propagandists and dangerous demagogues.

Argument Three. Direct democracy makes it virtually impossible to negotiate political bargains and compromises among opposing groups with conflicting views and interests. In every political controversy, one side emerges the total victor and the other side the total loser, leaving the losing side dissatisfied, alienated, and determined to reverse the decision, regardless of the costs and consequences. Political conflict over the issue continues, even though negotiation and bargaining might have discovered a middle ground acceptable to both sides. This makes for a high level of social tension and tends to destabilize the society and its government.

Argument Four. In a direct democracy, there is the ever-present danger of tyranny of the majority. In a political community where all adult citizens are members of the legislature, it is virtually impossible to limit the power of the majority. Unchecked rule by the majority leads to the majority’s abuse of political authority and the minority’s loss of rights. The majority, self-interested and governing in an overbearing fashion, deprives members of the minority of their legal rights. There are no institutional safeguards to moderate and restrain the exercise of governmental power and prevent the majority from riding roughshod over the rights and vital interests of members of the minority.

Representative democracy, according to its underlying and supporting political theory, is far superior to direct democracy. The masses cannot be trusted with political authority. The masses lack the wisdom and good judgement needed to provide good government–i.e., to govern effectively and, at the same time, preserve liberty and ensure justice. Instead of making governmental decisions themselves, the people should be allowed to vote in elections to choose a governing elite–a small group of leaders who will make the governmental decisions. The voters should have the right and opportunity to decide among competing political elites–to decide which of the elites, or leadership groups, will exercise political authority until after the next election. Legislative decisionmakers should acquire political authority by means of a competitive but peaceful and legal struggle for the support of a majority of the electorate.

In short, the people lack the capacity to govern society effectively, wisely and justly, but are quite capable of (1) choosing the small group of leaders who are to govern society, (2) holding the governors, or rulers, accountable for their decisions and actions while in office, and, (3) if dissatisfied, voting the governors out of office when the next election is conducted. While it is impractical to expect the people to directly govern society, it is quite practical to expect them to choose society’s rulers from among rival political elites–to select the few who shall rule until after the next election, when their terms of office expire.

James Madison, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century American political theorist and statesman, was among those who developed and presented arguments against direct democracy and in favor of representative government. Madison was instrumental in the convening of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and played an important role in the drafting of the United States Constitution and in securing its ratification and adoption. In The Federalist (1787-1788), Madison made a major contribution to the body of political theory underlying and supporting the U.S. Constitution and the American constitutional system. In Federalist 10, Madison maintained that, of the different types of popular government, direct democracy was the least likely to effectively limit governmental power, safeguard liberty and ensure justice, that tyrannical rule by a self-interested and overbearing majority was bound to be the consequence of government by common mass assembly.

Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.
University President & Professor of Political Science



NOTE : Marcus Wilson Jernegan, The American Colonies, 1492-1750A Study of Their Political, Economic, and Social Development (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar, 1929), p. 168.

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